cheaper thrills - mbombela stadium

The model of Mbombela Stadium in the foyer at R&L Architects in downtown Cape Town would look out of place almost anywhere else. True, the 1:333 scale is eccentric, the vivid patterning of the seats candidly mirrors zebra skin and the structural pylons resemble- to use their collective noun- a tower of giraffes. But it is the bright weave of myriad tiny glass beads from which the model is made that positively locates it in South Africa.

Mike Bell, a partner at the firm, gave an explanation of the making of this homespun model that could serve as an analogy for the architectural project it describes. The model-maker was found working on a Cape Town street corner. He was given the plans, sections and 3D images, a quick lesson with a scale rule and then left to work it out. The result is not only an accurate representation of the building in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga Province, but a beautiful work of art that captures its essential character.

Superficially the African symbolism in the building is very explicit and that was always the intention. The zebra-patterned seats follow a rectilinear plan that is beveled slightly at the corners to maintain an intimate sense of enclosure. In keeping with a very tight budget and a FIFA brief that requires a smaller, 40,000 seat capacity, the levels are very simple and the sight-lines clear throughout.

Between the seating bowl and the roof a continuous six meter gap allows natural ventilation and frames a view of the surrounding bush and mountains. Supporting the roof 18 four legged pylons are minutely modified to resemble a ring of abstracted giraffes standing smartly around a canopy of acacias. This may sound rather contrived but the design process reveals a correspondence between the architect's desire to “maximise the 'African-ness'” and the structural lessons of the form that inspires it. “It's one of those great things where the form and the function really are not parting from one another and are in fact assisting each other. Quite quickly the form started to happen…and started screaming out “I'm a giraffe!” It came together so nicely from there; we had to do very little to make it look like that. Even to the point where it was the engineer who wanted it to have four legs. It is a very stable structure and I guess so is a giraffe.” It should be added that being so close to the Kruger Park means it is one of the few buildings that can get away with using a structural form that conjures so uncannily one of the park's most elegant animals.

Also in the foyer is a wall painted in bright chevron patterns reminiscent of those seen adorning huts of the Ndebele tribe in the neighbouring Limpopo Province. The effect is carried through to the stadium's internal spaces, from designs on the car-park walls to bold colour-coding to the circulation routes and changing rooms. This reference to the region is as honest and unsentimental as the response to the savannah site; “[the Ndebele patterns] are not very old- I think from about the 50s when the domestics would go home for Christmas and their madames would give them pots of bright paint.”

However, the site has seen its fair share of controversy, particularly concerning a wetland that was bulldozed as the site for the schools which were themselves flattened to make way for the stadium. The failure of the municipality to begin rebuilding those schools in the former wetland and claims of internal corruption have not helped answer the critics who insist that the impoverished province has better claims on the R1.3 billion budget. Nonetheless from a design perspective the budget has been a real success, coming in at a fraction of Cape Town's projected R4.3 billion. The smaller size is an advantage as is the consistently warm climate. But the insistence on using durable (the design team demanded “bulletproof”) local materials, South African expertise and a range of environmental innovations demonstrates the money-saving utility of architectural design and innovation. The use of local materials was a “green” constraint that the design team placed on itself: “When we were designing the roof we asked the question: ‘what is the biggest pipe we make in South Africa?’ We found it was a 320mm pipe and we decide- that is as big as we are going go!” In the longer term the use of solar panels, water and heat harvesting and a simple, hardwearing construction will reduce maintenance and running costs.

This added value is matched for the architects by that of the building itself, not least since they experienced at first hand the 1995 South African rugby world cup victory which has recently been dramatised in the film Invictus. Mike Bell remembers that being in the stadium allowed him to witness “an incredibly powerful event.” The return on investment in South Africa is clear; “in fact there was a political movement of staunch conservative Afrikaners called the AWB [the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging]. And I just had this feeling that at the moment when Mandela appeared in the stadium the movement dissolved because the reason for its existence just stopped for the bulk of those guys. Apparently when one of them saw Mandela he said in a thick Afrikaner accent “I think I'm crying!”

This potency places responsibility on the designers; “[the experience] taught me the power of the stadium- it actually goes beyond the mundane and takes you into another level. That's why the memory is important because you can connect the memory with a physical element- which is where the giraffes came in. There was a desire to have some memorable feature, so when you leave there is a recognisable image in your mind.” This theory seems to hint at another local influence since it corresponds to the form of totemism by which indigenous tribes seek to connect a physical entity with the memory of their origins by splitting up into clans that are personified by animals.

The result is as an honest and successful an expression of African architecture as may be found anywhere on the continent. The proof is in the fact that, as Mike Bell says, “You cannot easily put this stadium into any other country.”